A radical Pope’s first year

A very interesting article in the The New Yorker, worth reading, even if its perspectives occasionally need some adjustment.



On most Wednesdays, the Pope gives a general audience, and this one was packed. It was a balmy October morning, and more than a hundred thousand pilgrims, tourists, and Romans had funnelled into St. Peter’s Square. It was the first of three large gatherings Pope Francis presided over that week for a celebration of the family during the Catholic Church’s “Year of Faith.”

Wooden railings imposed order in the square. I was about thirty yards from the Pope. In front of me were a pair of Vatican ushers in white tie and tails, several clergy, a short man in a yarmulke, and a handsome couple holding hands. Beyond them, Francis, seventy-six years old, in his stark-white cassock and skullcap, seemed energized by the festive crowd. A large man with a ready smile, he read from a brief text in Italian, but with fervor. “What kind of love do we bring to others? . . . Do we treat each other like brothers and sisters? Or do we judge one another?” The throng was silent, listening carefully. After Francis spoke, others summarized the remarks in various languages. Then a line of prelates approached his chair.

Now the prelates were gone, and Francis, with guards at a discreet distance, moved along the railing, greeting the people. The couple in the front row were in their thirties, tall, and dressed in dark clothing. Unlike others at the railing, who were waving and calling, “Papa Francesco! Papa Francesco!,” they held back. But when Francis turned to them the woman leaned forward with such gravity that the Pope took notice and stopped. Tears streaked her face. Francis reached for her hand, which she took as license to put her mouth by his ear. She whispered something. Francis looked startled, drew back a bit, then turned to her partner. The Pope embraced him, then drew the woman in. They stood like that for a while, the couple enveloped in the arms of the Bishop of Rome. Then Francis placed his hands on the man’s head. The man’s shoulders shook slightly. The Pope made a sign of the cross in the air above them and moved on.

As the crowd dispersed, I approached the couple. The man was weeping. The woman told me, “My husband has a brain tumor for the last four and a half years. He’s getting worse and worse. We came just for this, for his blessing, whatever it is—physical, emotional, or spiritual.” She told me that they were from Argentina, as is Francis. “I feel very near him. His look, his voice, everything is near to my heart. But surely not because he is from Argentina.”

Once, I felt that way myself, about another Pope. This was 1960, and I was seventeen, aiming to be an Air Force officer, like my father, a major general. My family was granted a private audience with Pope John XXIII. My parents, my grandmother, my four brothers, and I made our way up the Bernini staircase to the papal apartments in Vatican City. My father was in uniform, two stars on each shoulder. My mother and grandmother were draped in black mantillas. We were shown into a small, high-ceilinged room with red fabric walls; an elevated throne stood at one end. A monsignor lined us up. Then Pope John walked in, grinning, with outstretched hands. He was short and stout—all in white, although his shoes were red. His eyes danced. With a cry of “Bravo!,” he clapped, saluting my parents for their large Catholic family. Pope John, who was born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, in Lombardy, was one of fourteen children, a sharecropper’s son.

I was a tall boy, and the Pope reached up to my shoulders to pull me down. He put his mouth by my ear, his cheek against mine. I felt his whiskers and could smell his soap. He spoke to me in Italian—or was it Latin?—in an intimate whisper. Years later, I would look back on my reaction as naïve, yet in Pope John’s arms I felt the embrace of God. I had no way to grasp the meaning of John’s coming ecumenical council—the gathering of bishops known as Vatican II, which met in four sessions between 1962 and 1965 and which would reform the Church—but for me he played a pivotal role. Before long, I abandoned my Air Force dream and entered the seminary, to become a Catholic priest. I left the priesthood after five years, but I never stopped being a Pope John XXIII Catholic, which, given the reactionary slant of subsequent papacies, meant long decades of internal exile. Lately, the fact that I once sought transcendence in the presence of a Pope has stopped seeming naïve. Click here for the rest of the article…

This entry was posted in Pope Musings. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s